Tuesday, December 27, 2005

A Christmas Feast To Remember

Happy Christmas Fair Australians!

Despite recounting this story for many of you on the phone this last couple of days, our Christmas feast was so delightful the tale bears repeating. Besides I'm sure to have left out some of the more interestings details, not to mention the innumerable opportunities for embellishment! As you know (and can see in the photos), Andrea and I cooked up a three course Indian vegetarian feast for our Christmas dinner - there was a great deal of food and it was of course a shame not to have family and friends around to share in this bounty. Still we enjoyed a wonderful meal together with samosas, and dahl and palak pannir and aloo ghobi with roti bread and mango chutney all made fresh from scratch for the occasion (OK I lied about the mango chutney but the rest I swear is true!).

Yet the story really begins with a quick dash to the Indian grocer thanks to my new found work chum Rashpal. Upon hearing that Andrea and I intended to cook up an Indian feast for Christmas, Rashpal insisted that we obtain only fresh and authentic ingredients to prepare this repaste. She was also mildly offended at the thought that we would not be making our own breads up, so before I really had time to defend myself Rashpal had insisted that we drive over to her friend's grocery store in our lunch hour...this turned into quite the adventure...Rashpal had lived next door to the proprietor for some time and was on very friendly terms with him, which very quickly meant that I was also on very friendly terms with him given Rashpal's introduction. From this introduction and armed with a long shopping list in hand Rashpal proceeded to show me around all the various sections and departments around the shop - from the fresh spices to the Indian teas to the condiments to the obscure flour preparations and so forth.

Now the shop has for a long time supplied many of the local Indian restaurants and so almost everything available in the shop comes in bulk - one can quite easily purchase 25 kilos of cumin seeds for example. Being unsure as to whether I would use such a large number of cumin seeds in this life or indeed in any other of my various reincarnate lives I decided perhaps a scoop of each available spice and herb would be more appropriate. It was here that Rashpal's assistance really became invaluable!

Rashpal watched me like a hawk as I perused the various crates and tubs of dry spice, leaning over my shoulder and advising which particular batches were fit for consumption and which were "not really very good Cameron". And so we picked over different brands of tumeric looking for just the right aroma and orangy-yellow hue; poring over cardamom pods trying to find the strongest tangy fragrance. We next spent quite some time trying to find the best roti flour. Of course I thought flour was flour - this observation was met with the kind of withering contempt usually reserved around these parts for American tourists. Naturally, I decided from that point to shut up and listen and trust Rashpal's judgment in these matters.

It turned out to be quite the education as I was delivered lessons on the different attributes and qualities to search for in selecting lentils and legumes; how to prepare chickpeas before they are boiled and how to make the perfect leavened roti bread. I was just trying to soak up as much of this wisdom as possible - I had never seen many of these spices and ingredients before and here I was being told only the most lazy of Indian men refuse to make their own roti bread. Well one can scarcely allow such a slight to pass now can one! So challenge accepted I allowed Rashpal to stock high my basket with all manner of exotic new ingredients...lazy indeed, hardly a reputation one would wish to court.

Now lest you think that Rashpal and the store keeper were in cahoots goading this gullible and increasingly docile Australian into buying out half the shop and thus permitting the early close of the store for the day, I'll have you know that Rashpal drove quite the bargain once it came time to settle up our accounts. I mean everything was as cheap as chips anyway - half a kilo of cardomom pods for $1.20 for example hardly seems worth haggling over, but as I recall from our trip to India last summer, this part of the wheeling and dealing over the bill seems to be some kind of national sport Indians seem to revel in. So I let it all play itself out thinking that really a couple of dollars at this time of year seems mean to squabble over. But no, Rashpal hammered out a fair arrangement and so I left with bags and bags of wonderfully exotic and aromatic spices and condiments for what seemed like a criminally modest sum. So happy was I that Andrea and I arranged flowers for Rashpal the next day to thank her for the wonderful help. She seemed to think that we were a little crazy for not driving a harder bargain -seems we Australians have much to learn in these matters!

Yet the flowers were also to thank Rashpal for the sure-fire, never fail chai tea recipe that she left me with. After delivering another long disquisition on the various tea growing regions in the Himalayan foothills, Rashpal selected for me a fine black tea from the Assam region (apparently the best in India though I'm sure like everything else in India that this is the subject of centuries long fueding). So just add in all the ground spices to the steeping tea over moderate heat, plus a truly heart attack inducing quantity of brown sugar and hey presto you have chai tea. Very easy but ridiculously addictive (the cloves and ginger, cardomom and fennel make for a very satisfying and aromatic tea). Anyway I made some up on my last day of work before the break for all my workmates and was sponteneously made employee of the month! Though in the absence of any of the unit managers I think it was a largely hollow gesture - still I was promised a plaque of some description early in the new year and one really shouldn't quibble over these things.

All this before I even get to our Christmas feast but really all of this background is essential to telling the story well...you see the very drawn out process of making all the various dishes was made immeasurably more enjoyable given all the experimentation with new spices and ingredients and the thrill of making up these curries from scratch using authentic ingredients and authentic Indian recipes. Starting on Christmas eve with the preparation of the samosas, which took nearly four hours though the red wine really didn't help, and then running through most of christmas day preparing the three curries and the roti bread, the whole experience was a triumph if I do say so myself. The right ingredients really do make all the difference with the curries each wonderfully spicey and bitey without being overwhelming. The samosas too are grand (fortunatley we have some left over for lunch today) and I have to say the satisfaction with making them up from scratch including the dough and all the ground-spices is really quite something. As you can gather I'm feeling pretty proud of the whole business particularly as I was able to give Andrea leave of the kitchen for the entirety of the day. With Andrea able to relax on the couch changing the CDs at intervals whilst offering her usual mix of sparkling conversation and witty repartee, Christmas day proceeded at a very happy pace.

With the ensuing success of the meal and Andrea's relaxed demeanour I am now pretty popular around these parts (I might even get husband of the month to go with the employee achievement gong if I'm lucky). Anyway the whole thing was just grand, as you can see from the photos below.

The tray of dry spices is my absolute favourite. This handy tin was on special at the Indian grocer and I just love it...I wheel it out every morning in preparing the Chai tea and it's just great. As you can also see from the photos Andrea has been enjoying the chai tea on the couch most mornings...very nice. Our christmas feast was a very happy affair, with the champagne flowing (a little too liberally perhaps but hey it's christmas!) and the good times rolling. We enjoyed the meal immensely though of course we very much missed absent family and friends - wasn't really the same without you guys and we certainly had enough food for all. That said it is nice now having leftovers to pick over - nothing like it for the lazy days post christmas.

I've also posted Andrea's fine home art installation - in homage to our distant homeland we now have a full kangaroo costume hanging in the hallway...who knows when the need for it will arise yet we are now ready for all contingencies. Besides it's a wonderfully off-beat thing to run into in the morning! Do you want a cup of chai this morning skippy - of course my good man, chai for all! In fact I might just have to go and refill my mug now!

With all of our bountiful enthusiasm and good will for the holidays!

Much love

Cameron amd Andrea.


At 3:19 PM , Blogger hell said...

ooooh I suddenly have craving for chai, damn cam... you and your talk... can you give me the recipe?

and look at anj's hair, SO LONG! pretty lady. lovely to talk to you both. love you. x


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